The 2017 season got underway on Sunday afternoon at Saratoga Casino Hotel as a change to the usual racing schedule meant that February action returned to the Spa. There are four matinees scheduled for the month of February including Sunday’s opening day card, the Monday President’s Day matinee, as well as Thursday and Sunday racing this upcoming week. There was a t-shirt giveaway in conjunction with the kickoff of the ’17 campaign and fans came out in full force on what was a beautiful Sunday afternoon after a few weeks of hardcore winter weather in the Capital Region. The regular Saturday feature, the Open Pace, highlighted the twelve-race opening day program as seven top flight pacers battled for a purse of $12,000.
Bettor Rock On N took the first of what will likely be somewhere close to 100 total Opens this season at Saratoga after a year in which there was no dominant force in the Open Pace for the boys or the one for Fillies and Mares. The regular Sunday feature will be the Open trot which was dominated last year by Stirling Cadet. The Jackie Greene (formerly Rousse) trained standout swept the ’16 awards at the annual banquet which was held this year in mid-January. Stirling Cadet was named 2016 Horse of the Year as well as earning honors as Aged Trotter and Trotter of the Year. Stirling Cadet won nine Opens last season including four in a row during one stretch in the middle of the summer. While gifted with loads of early speed, Stirling Cadet really came in to his own last year when he began to display versatility. Almost always assigned outside posts in the feature, the eventual Horse of the Year really became a complete and dominant force when he learned to be a fierce closer. Often going last to first in the Open, Stirling Cadet was nearly a unanimous choice in the voting for top honors in 2016.
While the Rousse (Greene) stable’s star was clearly Stirling Cadet last year, there were other standouts coming out of the barn, in fact the track’s top pacer was trained by Rousse. Artful Way was in his first full season of racing at the Spa in ’16 after going five-for-seven in limited local tries in 2015 when he established himself not only as an Open pacer but a very strong one. While not the dominant force that his Horse of the Year stablemate was, Artful Way put together a six-figure campaign earning more than $100,000 for the second consecutive season by way of eight victories in the regular Saturday feature. Greene had Titus Seelster, who prevailed in a pair of Opens last year as well, in the feature on opening day. Both Stirling Cadet and Artful Way are owned by the Kellogg Racing Stables who enjoyed their best year to date in ’16 and took home a lot of hardware from the January awards banquet. So Nice was named Filly and Mare Pacer of the Year and Aged Pacing Mare after another consistent campaign at the Spa for the invader.
Though the Rousse stable ruled the awards for top flight horses, the Beckwiths had a big night as well after having a big season in ’16. Melissa Beckwith was named Trainer and Horsewoman of the Year while Mark Beckwith secured the award for Horseman of the Year for the first time. The Beckwith stable star last year was Mademoiselle Paris. A lower level claimer, Mademoiselle Paris was simply dynamic in her first season competing at Saratoga. The distaffer not only took home the award for Filly and Mare Claimer at the $5,000-$7,500 level but she came up just one vote shy of being named Filly and Mare Pacer of the Year, an award that never goes to a sub-Open caliber competitor. Mademoiselle Paris was the winningest horse of the meet, piling up 17 victories at the Spa in her award-winning season. Other winners of the awards for 2016 for claimers were One Chaser and Gibson Blue Chip while top claiming trotters were Need Help Here and Long Story Short. Owners Dennis and Simone Noud and trainer Monica Krist took home the awards for both two year old and three year pacers of the year with In A Single Bound and Brigadoon (who tied with Ashlee’s Four Star), respectively. Two Year Old Trotter of the Year was Jay Randall’s Osvaldo Blue Chip while Riverofroyalty was named top three year old trotter.
One of the most exciting aspects to the start of a new racing season is seeing which award-winning horses, if any, can produce a strong sequel to their sensational ’16 campaigns. In addition, what horses will pop up and emerge as forces in the 2017 season is always something to watch. The biggest change to the racing calendar this year is that Thursday racing will start at 12:15pm as some more matinees were added to the schedule in ‘17. Friday and Saturday racing will still begin at 6:45pm each week. While February racing occurs for the first time in several years at the Spa, there are just four February cards scheduled with Monday, Thursday and Sunday programs set for this coming week following the opening day extravaganza that occurred as the 76th season of live racing action kicked off this weekend at Saratoga Casino Hotel. Until next week, I’m Mike Sardella wishing you the best of luck and we’ll see YOU at the finish line!